Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Elite travel tips

The very first business trip I ever went on was a day trip to Los Angeles with my boss’s boss. As Chuck and I were settling into our leather United Airlines seats, Chuck dispensed some long-honed travel advice to my 22-year-old self.

“Pick travel companies and stick with them. Join their programs and build up loyalty. You will be rewarded.”

Chuck was pretty savvy with his gleaming cuff links and silky Windsor knots. Sitting in upgraded First Class through no effort of my own, I decided to pay attention. Within a matter of weeks, I had pledged my travel loyalty to one airline, two car rental companies, and three hotel chains.

Over the years, Chuck’s wisdom paid off. With over a decade of moderately extensive business travel, I racked up points and status and upgrades and perks. Flight attendants regularly offered me warm washcloths and free booze, I got rooms with jacuzzi tubs, and rental cars were always waiting for me to simply show up and drive away. All because I listened to Chuck.

Eleven years ago today, I added a cruise line to my list of travel favorites. I was heading home from a Trip of a Lifetime my mom and I took to celebrate our milestone birthdays (my 40th and her 60th). Traveling alone together for the first time in decades, Mom and I had a blast and a half cruising around the Mediterranean. Princess Cruises treated us wonderfully, made us feel at home, and helped us discover a part of the world that we had only dreamed about. I was grateful for such a perfect travel experience with my mom and decided to reward Princess with my loyalty.

14 cruises later, I have only broken my vow to Princess twice. Because, well, ports and calendars. As Chuck promised, my loyalty has indeed reaped rewards. As of a couple of days ago, I finally reached the pinnacle of Princess Customer Loyalty. Yes, that’s right folks, I am officially Elite. WHOO HOO! CUE FANFARE! OR AT LEAST THE THEME SONG TO “THE LOVE BOAT”!

"...life's sweetest reward..."
Behold the trinket that took
11 years and 12 cruises to earn

What’s the big deal about being an Elite Princess? Well, in addition to the free internet and special lounges I had access to before, I now get things like: a discount in the ship’s stores; faster lines for getting off the ship; free shoe polishing (uhhh...); fancier shampoo; some free food and booze; and…my ultimate goal and motivating force to achieve this apex...free laundry service!

Yes! Free laundry! On a cruise ship! Never again will I have to spend an At Sea Day jockeying for a washing machine in a tiny, cramped, steamy, crowded laundromat while I should be relaxing at the pool with an ice cream cone. Never again will I have to babysit the washer to make sure I am there to transfer my wet clothes to a dryer instead of finding them in an unceremonious heap on top of a machine. Never again will I have to spread dampish clothes throughout our cabin because the dryers don’t really dry.

Never again!

Now, because I was loyal and committed and worked the system just a tiny bit (more on that in a minute), Princess has bestowed upon me “Complimentary Laundry and Professional Cleaning Services” in which “Upon request, your stateroom steward will organize your laundry to be cleaned.” YAAAAAAAY!!

I have to admit, I’m a little curious about the “organizing” part. I am assuming that wording was chosen so that I don’t get the impression that my stateroom steward himself is going to babysit my laundry and tend the machines for me. But I also hope it doesn’t mean that he plans to separate my lights, darks, and unmentionables. Because that level of service creeps me out, Elite or not.

Now if THIS were the Elite pin, I would totally wear it

A friend who has access to Elite laundry told me she brings
her winter coat on Princess cruises regardless of the season
so that she can get it cleaned for free.  Sneaky!
I wonder if I pack our comforter...?


So how does one become Elite and ditch the laundromat? Simple. I had to either sail with Princess 150 days or take 15 Princess cruises, whichever came first. With only 80 cruising days to my name, the number of cruises was my ticket to Laundry Freedom. 15 cruises in 11 years seems sorta aggressive. Which it was. Except that we worked the system a little and actually only took 12 Princess cruises. Heh heh heh.

You see, Woodhaven is within driving distance of the only place in the world where you can take a 1-day cruise on Princess Cruises (the next closest is a 2-day cruise in Australia).

Twice a year, at the beginning and end of the Alaska cruising season, Princess needs to reposition a ship between Seattle and Vancouver, BC. And if a ship is moving, it might as well have passengers. Paying passengers. Paying, drinking, eating, shopping passengers.

There are quite a few Washingtonians and Canadians who have discovered this little mini-vacay-on-the-sea. We all get on, lounge at the pool, have dinner, enjoy a few drinks, attend a show or two, dance in a nightclub or play the slots, go to sleep, have breakfast, and get off the ship. Twenty hours max. When you get the cheapest room available, it’s less than dinner and a hotel room for one night in Seattle. And that includes parking and the 4-hour Amtrak bus back to the port you started at. For a special night out, it’s a pretty rockin’ bargain.

Lido Deck -- 3 hours before we set sail.  There's no
time to waste on a 1-day cruise.


So that was one trick to my fast-track to Elite status – we took three 1-day cruises. But there are a few other sly maneuvers we learned along the way…mostly by eavesdropping on super-turbo cruisers.

  • If you stay in a suite, your cruise counts as two cruises instead of one.
  • If you stay in a room by yourself, your cruise counts as two cruises instead of one.
  • If you own 100+ shares of stock in the mega company that owns just about all of the cruise lines in the world, you get a minimum of $50 free to use while you are onboard (this increases up to $250 for longer cruises. Cha ching!)
  • If you bring your own wine onboard (a limit of one bottle per passenger), you can pay a $15 corkage fee and have a much better bottle of wine for much less than what the cruise line offers


Yes, we did all of those things. Some more than once.


The Suite Life
Staying in a suite was quite fun. We hibernated in our cabin as much as possible to soak it all in since the decadence was so short-lived.

The room was filled with marble floors and marble counter tops. The bathroom had a full tub AND a shower and had three doors, one of which was next to the walk-in closet. There were two rooms, each with a sliding glass door to the large deck…which featured two loungers AND a table and four chairs.

We were greeted with glasses of champagne and a fruit bowl. A free mini-bar was stocked. Food arrived regularly – chocolate-covered strawberries, hors oeuvres, more fruit. Another knock on the door was our room steward delivering a new orchid plant because apparently the one that was already on a counter next to the phone wasn’t big enough.

We had access to a special dining area where we arrived at our leisure and were instantly seated – no waiting or need for reservations. We also had complimentary use of a thermal spa which was really just a big steamy room with some ceramic lounge chairs that retained a delicious amount of heat for a sore back. For free it was awesome but not worth paying extra for. I did feel all fancy, though, when all I had to do was flash my suite cruise card and was instantly whisked into sauna heaven.

I was so bummed this luxurious and truly elite lifestyle was ours for only 20 hours.

Taken from the entry door.  Marble bathroom to right,
mini-bar across from Rob, bedroom, dresser,
desk, walk-in closet, jacuzzi tub, shower
behind mini-bar.  Inadequate orchid out
of screen shot to the left.


Separate but together
For our final cruise in the Elite Pursuit, Rob and I booked separate rooms. Both rooms were super cheap interior cabins at the back of the ship, although Rob’s was better because mine came with fold-down bunks attached to the walls. So we slept in Rob’s slightly less claustrophobic cabin. We…us…two people who have white hair and have been married almost 29 years. Nevertheless, I felt like a total hussy going in and out of Rob’s cabin that was only registered in his name.

The next morning I threw on a baseball hat and my coat to trot back up to my cabin to grab my final bill. I’m pretty certain the room stewards in the hallway were smirking at my Morning After Walk of Shame. Worse, I threw back covers on my cabin’s bed, tossed a towel on the bathroom floor, and ran some water in the sink all to make it look like I had actually used my room. Me, a liberated, adult, 51-year-old woman who nonetheless didn’t want it to look like I was sleeping around…with my HUSBAND…on this one-night-pleasure cruise.

Good Lord, my head is a trip sometimes.

Although the double credit for the cruise and the $100 stock benefit ($50 for each cabin) were pretty sweet, this solo-cabin trick was waaaaay too much work trying to protect my nobody-really-cares-but-me reputation. All in the name of Free Laundry.

Together in Seattle...as it should be.


I was honestly expecting some sort of acknowledgement from the fine Princess People of my Elite achievement at the end of our 20-hour cruise a few days ago. In the past I’ve gotten a little pin and letter of congratulations with my final bill. But all I had was a bill for $18.36 for a puffy vest I bought on clearance in the used-to-be-Alaska-souvenirs-but-now-its-all-Hawaiian gift shop.

Mopey, I stopped at the front desk to ask if they had any Elite pins even though I read some small print that I am now supposed to wait until my next cruise to get it. The nice Reception guy seemed grateful for a request that didn’t involve a computer.

Later we joined a hungover yet lively group of six Canadians at their table for breakfast. One of the sleepier guys had just earned his Elite status, too. Without prompting, we each sang out what we were most excited about.

Me: “FREE LAUNDRY!”   Simultaneously him: “FREE MINI-BAR!”

Cheers to that!



Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Original Cosmic Tripsters

Among the early indicators that Rob and I would choose the Portland metro as our new home 15 years ago were the frequent weekend trips we made to visit friends in a rural Portland suburb. The friends transitioned out of the Bay Area several years before it occurred to us to do the same. Our trips to hang out with Steve and Terrie were always so relaxing and filled with great food, great laughs, and deep breaths.

Steve and Terrie were the first to introduce us to an eclectic Pacific Northwest brewpub chain called McMenamins. Created by two brothers in 1983, the chain is known for good handcrafted beer, interesting décor, custom artwork, RC Cola, tater tots, an annual UFO Festival, and mediocre service.

Some McMenamins restaurants are in strip malls; others are repurposed historic buildings. Some restaurants merely serve food and beverages; others are compounds that include hotels and spas and pools and firepits. A few locations have movie theaters; one venue in Portland is an iconic concert hall with a super fun ballroom floor on springs.

Each location has its own personality and décor while maintaining a consistent vibe and brand identity. McMenamins are always casual, mellow, friendly, and cozy. They are a tiny bit edgy and a whole lot quirky and just hip enough to be both cool and accessible. McMenamins are great spots for light chit chat, heavy-duty life conversations, a spontaneous meal out, and treating out-of-town visitors to something iconically local. Clearly a Woodhaven favorite.

Back about 16ish years ago, on one of our trips to visit Steve and Terrie, we stumbled on the idea for a fun contest. We decided to see who among us – including Steve’s proximate aunt and uncle – could go to all the McMenamins locations first.

Rob and I confidently suspected we had a decent shot at winning. Despite living in California, we often drove to visit Steve and Terrie…passing a number of McMenamins locations along the way. Plus we’re both maybe a tiny little bit competitive. And Rob likes to drive.

McMenamins locations span from as far south as Roseburg, Oregon near the California border to as far north as Mill Creek, Washington past Seattle. As far east as Bend, Oregon in the middle of the state all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Lincoln City. Overall about 375 miles north-to-south and 175 miles east-to-west. These days there are 62 McMenamins locations. I’m guessing back when our contest started there were about 45. So quite a bit of ground to cover but totally doable. Especially if one is retired.

The rules of our contest were simple. We had to visit each location and purchase something to consume. Could be a meal, could be a drink, could be a snack. Proof of our visits was the honor system (yeah, we’re competitive but we’re also pretty trustworthy). I’m almost certain each of us had the same McMenamins Locations brochure in our glove compartments to track our progress. Because this was the early 2000’s and there weren’t fancy gadgets like smart phones and McMenamins apps and Google Maps. And the prize for visiting all the restaurants? Bragging rights.

The contest was humming right along, Rob and I gleefully snagging the northern-most locations while on a “Should we move here?” trek around Seattle (the answer was a resounding “no.” Seattle is lovely without a car. With a car…a nightmare.). Rob and I were certain that once we finally moved and settled into Woodhaven, it would only be a matter of weeks before we would road trip around our new geography and win the contest. We smugly knew we had this in the bag.

Unfortunately, we have some smart and crafty friends.

Terrie knows us well…and is herself a touch competitive. While Rob and I were in California busily packing boxes and arranging for utilities to be turned off and insurance to be transferred, Terrie swooped in, drove all around the Pacific Northwest, and rightfully earned her title as The Winner. Dang it!

Inspired by the fun and drama of it all, Steve’s aunt Sue decided to write a letter to the McMenamins headquarters to tell them about our little contest, figuring they are just local and hometown enough to get a kick out of our dedication and fandom. Indeed they did!

The fine McMenamins folks wrote Sue back, expressing admiration and appreciation for all of us and a special congratulations for Terrie. Included with the letter was a celebratory gift certificate for Terrie to enjoy dinner and a night at a McMenamins hotel. WOW! Do they rock or what?!

Fast-forward about 10 years. We hear of this new program McMenamins has come up with. It’s called The Passport.

For $30, you buy a little booklet that really does look like a US Passport. It has a blue cover and an ID page for your photo and pages for each McMenamins location. The game is to trek to each McMenamins and get a stamp in your passport as proof of your visit (no purchase necessary).

Each location has its own arty stamp.  So creative!
And colorful!

Some locations only require one stamp; others require 5-10 stamps to make sure you scope out all the little bars and theaters and spas. You get prizes as you go along, like a free burger or appetizer (tots!) or a branded t-shirt or tote bag. You can also earn gift cards by having “Experiences” like attending a movie or playing a game of pool or touring their winery or ordering a beer flight.

And the prize when you finish your passport? You become something called a Cosmic Tripster. Groovy!

As a Cosmic Tripster, you get booze at Happy Hour prices for a year, 3 nights at a McMenamins hotel, a free ticket to a concert of your choice, a special t-shirt and pint glass and key chain, and attendance at an exclusive blow-out celebratory party. Oh, and bragging rights.

Rob and I bought our McMenamins Passports in 2016 and got our first stamps on December 6th at the Gearhart restaurant/hotel/golf course on the Oregon Coast.

Remember when I had dark hair??  Wow,
becoming Cosmic Tripsters took longer
than I realized.
Over the next nearly three years, we poked around Portland, took an overnight getaway to Bend, powered through Seattle, and spent a very long day driving 450 roundtrip miles to Roseburg, McMinnville, and Forest Grove. We officially turned in our completed passports on August 8, 2019 and were bestowed the hard-earned title of Cosmic Tripsters. CHEERS TO US!

At last!  We turned in our passports at Kalama Harbor Lodge
but actually finished them at the Elks Temple in
Tacoma.  If you aren't a local, no worries.  Just enjoy the
cosmic tripsteriness of the photo and swag.

My goal-oriented inclination was to race around the Pacific Northwest and fill our Passports in a matter of a few months. Rob tamed me and insisted on a more leisurely, exploratory pace. Bless him.

By taking our time, I focused more on the discovery than on the goal. The McMenamins Passport game was directed travel, a quest to explore new places, and an excuse to leave the house. I loved hunting down new locations, learning some history, driving roads I didn’t know existed, visiting towns I would otherwise not bother to stop in. It really was a hoot of an adventure and I’m sad it’s over.

On The Quest to complete my Passport, I learned some history about the Portland music scene in the 1970s-90s. I found secret rooms filled with black lights. I was in awe of the creativity of building small bars behind secret doors. I saw "The Princess Bride" in a movie theater instead of a living room for the first time ever. I ate a lot of tater tots. I discovered a favorite salad. I noshed along rivers and sipped beverages in college towns. I spent the night in an old schoolroom. I played pinball for the first time in years.

McMenamins hotels are often built with secret rooms
hidden in hallways.  Enter and you are treated to
trippy artwork lit in psychedelic black lights.

We accumulated quite an array of free souvenirs on our quest to become Cosmic Tripsters. The McMenamins folks know how to swag. Among the free prizes we collected: 3 t-shirts each; 2 tote bags; 4 beer pint glasses; a lunch box; a stuffed black rabbit (their red wine is called Black Rabbit); a stuffed man in overalls with a hammer for a head (their Pale Ale is called Hammerhead); 2 beer growlers; a corkscrew; a bottle opener; a key chain; and at least a half-dozen other McMenamins tchotchkes I have forgotten because they have become such an integral part of Life at Woodhaven that I don’t notice them anymore.

Just a smattering.  We are clearly either
fans or employees.

As Rob and I stamped around the PNW, we kept wondering if Sue’s letter to the McMenamins folks back in 2004 was the inspiration for this unique scavenger hunt. Last weekend we finally found out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the congratulatory Cosmic Tripster Party. I figured a lot of people would be wearing the official “You Made It” t-shirt and there would be some food and beverage. I was right on both counts.

Our Party was held last weekend, just a couple days after a water pipe burst at the party locale and flooded part of the historic hotel. Fortunately, the party venue was the outdoor concert grove that has hosted acts like B.B. King, Paul McCartney, Barenaked Ladies, Ziggy Marley, and Jason Mraz. It was a beautiful, dry evening that didn’t require long sleeves.

These Cosmic Tripsters made their own
Ruby costumes in honor of the friendly
witch who represents the fruity Ruby Ale
made from raspberries.

The party was kicked off by this festive
New Orleans-style jazz band strolling
through the venue.


There were probably about 2000 people in attendance; this
grassy area was just one part of the venue.

62 locations later, we finally discovered
Rob likes...and even prefers?!?...the
Cajun tots over the regular ones.  D'OH!

Rob and I spent about three hours at the party. We walked around, got a few commemorative stamps, and stood in line for swag that was mostly sold out by the time we got to the cash register. We chatted with a dear friend who is on her third Passport who explained that the free hotel stays are rather addictive. I noted that the Cosmic Tripster demographic is largely middle-aged earthy hipsters with just enough disposable resources to traipse around two states in search of free beer glasses and tater tots.

We felt totally hosted and appreciated at the party. We got our choice of free food from a variety of food trucks (I got a Pork Belly Cuban sandwich; Rob got a cheeseburger). Free McMenamins adult beverages were flowing, making the atmosphere quite spirited by the time we left. Music blared and strangers easily became friends with a shared love of McMenamins.

About an hour into the festivities, the two McMenamin brothers and their families took the stage. They greeted us, thanked us, and toasted us. And then they stuck around for photos and chit chat.

This was it!  We would finally find out if our goofy little contest with Steve and Terrie and Sue and Max over 15 years ago was the beginning of this quirky and highly merchandised game.

Sidling up to Dan McMenamin, I innocently asked, “How did you guys come up with the idea for the Passports?”

Dan seemed excited to answer. He said they had been thinking about it for a few years and wanted to come up with a fun way to get their customers engaged.

“People would write to us and tell us they went to all of our locations and we thought, ‘Well, now what? How do we celebrate that?’ That was maybe 10 to 15 years ago. So it took awhile to figure out the program.”

People, you say? People wrote to you and told you they went to all of your locations? Maybe 10-15 years ago? And you wanted to help them celebrate?

NAILED IT!!!!

YES! Steve and Terrie and Sue and Max – we ARE indeed the inspiration, the muse, the genesis of the wildly fun and increasingly popular McMenamins Passport game!!! GO US!!! WE ROCK! Quietly, off to the side, in a booth in the corner without any fanfare because we’re all introverts and really don’t want much attention.

Nevertheless, I think we should meet soon to celebrate our brilliance. Perhaps over burgers, beer, and of course, some tater tots.

Dan is very tall.  And pretty friendly.
And not quite aware of the epicness of this photo.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Fair Fun 2019 – Recap, Lessons Learned

We’ve been home for a week from our Grand Fairing Adventure and we are finally starting to recover. Rob and I both agree we had an absolutely fantastic time. We had talked for a few years about road-tripping around Midwestern fairs and I am so grateful we finally did it!  It was even better and more delicious than I imagined.

Rob and I also agree that we are never going to do a trip quite like this again. Oh our aching bodies! Four fairs over two weeks in four states in three time zones proved to be a bit…aggressive? It all made a ton of sense in February when we were booking rooms and flights and a rental car. As so many ideas do from the comfort of a recliner with a cat and a mug of tea.  Somehow we completely underestimated the exhaustion of so much fairing.  Ooopsie.

But that does not mean we are done exploring Fairs. Far from it! We have a list going of other Fairs we must attend. Minnesota, Texas, and New Mexico State Fairs have all been strongly recommended. As has the Orange County Fair in Southern California. Although this might be news to Rob, I could see us attending My Beloved Fair plus another fair or two each year…as long as we have more than two travel days of “rest” in between. A lot depends on geography, dates, and A1C levels.

The opportunity to explore other Fairs, try new foods, see far-flung friends and family, and get a peek at lifestyles and cultures beyond the Pacific Northwest was all what I adore about travel. I loved being surprised and lost. I loved having new things to write about. I loved gathering a list of suggestions to improve My Beloved Fair. I loved realizing a new appreciation for things My Fair does extraordinarily well.

I admit, though, it was difficult to ditch My Fair after only three days. I found myself intentionally avoiding pictures friends at home were posting of My Fair, as it hurt my heart to be missing out. I missed seeing all sorts of friends every day and having lingering conversations. I missed seeing my llama and alpaca buddies (human and camelid) rock their competitions and score lots of ribbons. I missed seeing the rodeo and demolition derby. I missed hanging out with some new neighbors while watching their two daughters learn and grow with their horsemanship. I missed feeling like I was part of the unique and cherished community that is My Fair.


Favorite Fair?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time figuring out which of the three state fairs we attended was my favorite. For awhile it was a tie between Wisconsin and Iowa.  But with more reflection, Iowa decidedly nudged ahead by a handful of corn kernels.

I loved the smaller feeling of the Wisconsin Fair.  I felt like I could almost wrap my arms around it.  It had a smallish-town community spirit that made me feel at home. I was also blown away by how dang friendly everyone was. I honestly don’t think the Wisconsinites were friendly just because they were double-fisting beer. I’m guessing it was the cheese and Aaron Rodgers, too.

They take their Fair Food seriously in Wisconsin, with the annual Sporkies contest amongst the food vendors. That there is State Fair Genius. I immediately felt like I was in the midst of deep fried kindred spirits.  The must-have cream puff and cheese curds were pretty amazing.  Those regional delicacies definitely added to the character and sense of being in Wisconsin and not just a random fair. So there was much to love and appreciate about the Wisconsin State Fair…even if they insisted on making a big deal about the Green Bay Packers.

But did I mention the pork in Iowa? OMG. I am still dreaming about the pork chop and that incredible brown sugar pork belly on a stick. Truly, my life with pork has changed forever. I also loved how down-homey and folksy the Iowa State Fair felt despite it being massive (they need TWO sky gliders to cover the length of the Fair!). Iowans are rightfully proud of their Fair. There is history there (there was even a museum onsite), not to mention mostly-ignored television cameras and Big Time Politicians vaguely legitimizing the Fair's national importance and credibility.

I also had two Amazing Moments In Fairing at the Iowa State Fair. I got to see a baby piglet being born AND I got to watch arm wrestling in an old auction house oozing with nostalgia. Both of those moments were magical and filled me with a joy and gratitude I wish I could bottle.  In some ways, the Iowa State Fair felt like a huge family reunion where crashers were welcomed and offered a cold beverage. The longer we were there, the more the Iowans captured my heart…and tummy.

I wasn’t as excited by the Indiana State Fair. Some of that is due to its split-personality. But I also realized, as we drove from the Fair back to Chicago for our flight, that what I really didn’t like was Indianapolis. The Fair is sort of right in the capital city…and the city felt a bit gritty with some rough edges.  That grittiness and urbanity seeped into the Fair making it feel like less of an escape than the other Fairs.

I was also disappointed with the Indiana Fair’s food options. They didn’t really have anything iconic or special. We found a few gems (I’m talking to you, elephant ear calzone stuffed with baked apples.  WOW!) but overall the food was pretty standard and sort of boring.

I loved the old timey section of the Indiana State Fair, and the Taste of Indiana was indeed tasty and educational (probably what the Iowa Fair After Dark event was aiming for but failed miserably). I was also blown away by the foresight and ingenuity of the Indiana folks providing Info Cards next to the judging rings so spectators could try to play along when cows or pigs or sheep were being expertly evaluated. So Indiana definitely got some things right; there were just some areas that the other two fairs did much better.


Me and the very best Fair Buddy on the planet
enjoying our favorite Iowa State Fair between feedings


Lessons Learned
Like anything you try for the first time, there are things you learn along the way. Some seem obvious after the fact; others are revelations and true “AH-HA!” moments. Here are some insights gleaned from our Inaugural Fair Fun On the Road trip:
  • We can explore and pretty much cover a State Fair in two concerted days if we are by ourselves. If we are Fairing with other people – especially little ones – we need at least one extra day.
  • We average about 9 hours per day at our Fair. We averaged about 11 hours daily at the State Fairs.
  • We go at a calmer, slower pace at our Fair since it is smaller and we spend a lot of time talking to friends. We are also very familiar with our Fair and typically take 9-10 days to cover it so there is no need to rush. Although we certainly took breaks at the State Fairs, there was a latent sense of urgency to see everything since we only had a few days at each. I’m guessing this played into the exhaustion that we are almost but not quite recovered from.
  • We Fair better alone. We absolutely loved seeing our friends and family – and would and will do it again as it was great fun to see the Fairs through locals’ eyes. But, Rob and I are introverts who are sort of addicted to each other. We noted we felt more connected and relaxed when it was just the two of us.
  • I get emotional leaving a Fair…any Fair…for the last time.
  • Cash is better than credit cards. Surprisingly, many food vendors at all three State Fairs only accepted cash. At our Fair, those little white Squares are pretty prominent if chip readers aren’t available.  In other news, we're really hoping our regional bank reimburses ATM transaction fees.
  • Although pre-purchasing tickets online for discounts seemed like a great and smart idea, there were a few instances where freebies were not announced until much closer to the actual day, leaving us with extra tickets to find a home for. Plus you never know when your bright silver hair is going to procure a Senior Discount. It is magical!

View of the Indiana State Fair from our
free Senior Discount seats on the
Tractor Tram


STATS:

Distance walked: A total of 128,195 steps or an average of 5.34 miles per day over all four fairs. The shortest day was 3.3 miles at My Fair. The longest was 7.0 miles at the Iowa State Fair. My feet have been thrilled to be in different shoes since we got home.

Price of gas (gallon of Regular): 
Wisconsin = $3.08/gal.
Iowa = $2.89/gal.
Indiana = $2.58/gal.
Washington = $3.35/gal. Oh, state taxes…

Miles driven in our rental car: 1,392. I loved the miles in Wisconsin best. That is a gorgeous state of green hills, pastures, and barns. It looks like where good food is grown. Between the scenery and the super duper friendly people, I told Rob I would consider living in Wisconsin if I liked snow, beer, and the Packers.

Number of new pairs of Fair-themed earrings currently on order from Etsy: Four! I will now have a full set of 10 so no repeated earring days needed! Hey, we all have goals. This was one of mine.

Best Fair Food eaten: Brown Sugar Pork Belly On A Stick in the Magical Land o Bacon that is Iowa. OMG. The Chicago Dog Nachos in Wisconsin were especially delicious, too. OH! And that chocolate covered peppermint ice cream bar in Iowa!!  It was definitely a good eatin' trip.

Worst Fair Food eaten: Tie between the poutines in Indiana with duck fat and bad cheese curds AND the mushy, pudding-like deep fried milk in Wisconsin. Ick.

Number of fire flies spotted: 3 elusive ones in Efrin’s backyard parking lot in Iowa.

Thanks for the space and hospitality, Efrin!



And so here we are. The End. Our trip to check out some of the best State Fairs in the country was a dream come true. And very likely the beginning of some sort of annual or semi-annual tradition.

Next year’s Fairing will look a little different again. I’m not sure how. But I do know that I need more than 3 days at My Beloved Fair. And that four fairs over two weeks will not be happening again. Ouchy.

But I WILL be Fairing and I will be inviting you along for the miles walked, the calories consumed, the animals petted, and the tears of sweet gratitude shed. A sincere and heartfelt thank you to those of you who have hung in there with me this year, reading along, commenting, encouraging. I love writing and I love Fairing…and I love sharing both.

Fairwell until next year!



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

If I were in charge of My Fair...

We’re home! And still exhausted! I will be posting one last Fair blog after this one, to recap and reflect on what was one of the goofiest and most exceptionally fun vacations Rob and I have ever taken. Truly…what a BLAST!!

As dedicated Woodhaven Ramblings readers well know, I absolutely adore my beloved Clark County Fair. I love its feeling of community, its richness of family-friendly entertainment, and its determined focus on animals and 4-H in a world where smartphones and YouTube compete to capture young minds and energies.

But I also have felt a staleness, a lack of creativity, a coasting the past few years. My Beloved Fair could use a boost of new ideas. Our recent trek to the Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana State Fairs conveniently provided LOTS of fodder. You know me – I took notes. And pictures.

With hopes and intentions of passing these observations along to A Fair Person In Charge, I give you:


THINGS OTHER FAIRS DO BETTER:

Sponsored benches: The old, creaky, wobbly yellow wooden benches at My Fair are well past their expiration date. They are scary-tipsy and they need to be replaced. I know that takes money. Conveniently, Wisconsin and Iowa have a smart solution. Both Fairs had heavy-duty plastic benches engraved with the names of people who sponsored them. I have no idea if the folks paid for the benches in full or just subsidized them. Either way, I would be one of the first to sign up to sponsor a sturdy bench at My Fair with something fun and Fairish engraved on it. Much more practical than a commemorative brick, I bet I am not the only Fair Fan willing to join this fun-draiser.

Sturdy, easy to clean, doesn't tip backwards.  All good things.



Fans in the horse barn: The Horse Arena at my Fair is one of the worst places to hang out on a warm day. The air is stale and hot and stuffy. It is no fun for the spectators and I can’t imagine it’s any better for the spiffily-dressed riders or their decorated horses. I was astounded that all three state fairs we visited had horse arenas that were areas we sought out to cool down. COOL DOWN! In the Horse Arena! Unheard of!! Although Indiana went all fancy-pants with an air conditioned coliseum, both Wisconsin and Iowa had installed these fancy things called “Electric Fans” in their horse arenas. The fans worked magnificently. There are enough events in Clark County’s Horse Arena throughout the year, I imagine better air circulation and quality would be easily justified and widely applauded.

So breezy and quiet!  So lovely.



Food competition among the vendors: The Sporkies competition in Wisconsin is pure Fair Food Brilliance. Every year, the food vendors at the Wisconsin State Fair create new taste sensations and compete to win a gold trophy in the shape of a spork…and bragging and marketing rights. Each vendor with a Sporkie entry is allowed (and encouraged) to note their Sporkability on their menu. This made it super fun and easy for a Fair Food Fan to locate some of the more creative and unique food offerings at Wisconsin’s fair. The day after this year’s Sporkie winner was announced, there was a 19 minute wait to try the Buffalo Cheese Curd and Chicken Fried Taco. I know because I was in that line…and it was totally worth the wait. OMG. (See Day 5’s Fair Food Feast Parade for details.) Honestly, I think a contest like the Sporkies at the Clark County Fair would be a hoot for both the food vendors and the fairgoers. And my hand is already raised to be a judge!

Note the trophy in the corner of the window
on the left.  Also note the line curling
behind the booth. So worth it!



Brochure/List of new foods to try: If food vendors really got into gear, the Clark County Fair could provide fairgoers a list of all the new, fun, creative foods to try. Not only handy for the Fair Food Fiend, but also a fabulous marketing tool for the vendors. Wisconsin and Iowa both handed me map-referenced lists and my tummy was very grateful.

Iowa on the left, Wisconsin on the right.
Both had full sheets of info on the back, too.
These were my people.



Regional foods: Beyond the Sporkies, I loved that both Wisconsin and Iowa featured regional food favorites like cheese curds, cream puffs, and all things pork. I think I have lived here too long to know what food might be quintessentially Pacific Northwest, but I bet there are some recent transplants on the Fair Board who would have a few ideas of what we think is common but is actually sort of unique food here.

Wisconsin's iconic food comes as a mascot, too!
Cravin D. Cream Puff was all smiles to
meet Rob and Piglet.



Green sawdust in show rings: I have no idea if this is an easy change or not, but I was so surprised by how sharp green sawdust looks in a show ring! We watched the pig tapping competition (officially called something boring like 4-H Swine Showmanship) in Iowa and I LOVED the green sawdust. It looked grassy and fresh and pastural. It was also a fantastic contrast against the neutral colors of the pigs.

That'll do Pig, that'll do.



Judging sheets for each type of animal: Perhaps the biggest stroke of genius we saw at any of the fairs was in Indiana. Next to the show ring prior to each competition, a stack of cards was provided for the spectators so they would have a clue about what they were watching. SO many times I have watched a 4-H or Open Class animal competition having no idea what the judges were judging nor what determined the order of the ribbons at the end. The cards in Indiana were fantastic! We collected all that we could (apparently the Goat Cards were hot commodity; not even the Administration Building had them in stock). This was so simple yet so powerful in helping the fairgoers feel a part of the fair. Clark County, this could be pretty easy and not terribly expensive to implement!

These were so handy!  And granted, printing
on card stock in color on both sides could
get expensive.  But even a large laminated poster
at each show ring could be super helpful.



Avenue of Breeds: Iowa had a great idea to help educate the average fairgoer. One of the barns had a row of pens they called The Avenue of Breeds. Each pen had a different breed of animal, with like animals grouped together. Each pen had a uniform sign explaining the breed, the origin, and distinguishing features. So the fairgoer was able to easily see and learn about the different breeds of cows, sheep, goats, chickens, horses, pigs…the whole shebang! It was pretty cool and very popular. Families with little ones with eager but short attention spans and easily tired feet seemed to especially appreciate this one-stop-shopping approach to seeing all the animals.

Both sides of the aisle were part of the Avenue.



Swag stores: OMG! The bane of my Fairing existence at My Fair! How hard is it to offer the purchase of some brand-building, loyalty-inspiring t-shirts, hats, pins, key chains, and cinch sacks? Clark County had t-shirts and hats about 10 years ago. Then about 5 years ago they attempted to make Fair swag a fundraising opportunity for local non-profits…which resulted in astronomical prices that even this Fair Fanatic refused to pay. Currently, the only souvenir you can get at the Clark County Fair is the milkshake cup from the Dairy Women’s Barn. I have quite a few friends that have extensive collections of the annual cups. One because they are adorable; two because there’s no other memento to gaze at in the damp, dark depths of January to remember your awesomely fun, sunny day at the Clark County Fair last summer. Somehow…SOMEHOW…the marketing folks at all three state fairs we attended managed to figure out how to offer all sort of fair swag. In stores even! Wisconsin had designated days where you could get a discount on this year’s swag if you wore “vintage” swag from prior years. Brilliant! They and Iowa also offered annual pins with a different design each year to encourage collections. I was collecting Clark County pins once. Until they stopped producing them after 2014. BOO!!!!!

A whole store, people.  A. Whole. Store.



Quilting station: An annual discussion amongst my older friends and me at My Fair is the recognition and fear that the fine arts of Home Economics is dying. Canning, quilting, sewing…the entries are dwindling with the skills not seemingly passed down to the next generation. A sign of the times, we sigh. Well, I am here to tell you…Home Econ is not dead in the Heartland! Goodness gracious, all three Midwestern fairs were bursting with evidence of what one might do to entertain oneself during countless blizzards each winter.

Iowa was doing something to help stoke the fires of interest and creativity. One of the rooms filled with quilts (I think there were three rooms total) had about 20 sewing machines set up. Three of them were occupied by young teens when we wandered in. The teens were intently working on sewing quilt squares. A couple of adults were on hand to guide them through the process but for the most part, the girls were learning first-hand that they could sew and quilt.

It honestly struck me as an ingenious way to engage kids and prove to them that quilting and sewing was within their reach. Like any good marketer knows, you get them interested young and you can have a customer for life. I would love to see My Fair set up something similar, perhaps taking all the squares created during the Fair and quilting them together each year for display at the next year’s Fair. How cool would it be for kids (and adults) to see their square as part of a community quilt each year??

I'm thinking just 3 or 4 sewing machines would be enough
at My Fair.  And a couple non-hovery adults to supervise.



Quirky food contests: Iowa had a fascinating solution for getting the public engaged in its food competitions. The Iowa Fair allows anyone to sponsor their own food contest – they just need to provide the category, the prize money, and judges. There were contests for things like “Sandwiches We Like” and “Helen’s Memorial Baking Competition” in honor of someone’s grandma. I loved the idea of opening up the food competitions to more people, both as judges and as cooks.

I love everything about this.  The idea.
The contest.  The name. The hat.



First-time Fairgoer brochure and pin: Our first stop at each fair was the Information Booth (which by the way, My Fair could use a few more of…and Rob and I would happily volunteer shifts!). I would excitedly explain we were from out of state, had 2-3 days, and needed to know what I MUST see, do, and eat to most fully experience Their Fair.

Well, the folks in Iowa were ready for me! In addition to a map, daily schedule, and brochures about the new foods to try, Betty handed me a “Guide for First Time Fairgoers” and coordinating pin. WOW!

The brochure wasn’t terribly specific (“Try some food!” “See some animals!”), but I loved the hospitality it represented. The pin, on the other hand, was fantastic! I proudly put it on my shirt and all day long, food vendors and other Fair employees greeted me warmly, asked about my Fair experience, asked where I was from, made recommendations, etc. In short, the pin prompted each employee to make me feel welcomed and a part of their Iowa Fair Family. Just one of the many reasons the Iowa State Fair was my favorite.

Very much enjoying the First Time Fairgoer Pin!
The pickle beer...not so much.



Simple pleasures:
One of the most endearing finds at the Indiana State Fair was easy, simple fun tucked away in corners that might otherwise be overlooked. One grove of trees in the background was an outdoor movie theater featuring lawn chairs and Pixar movies. A barn offered a free miniature golf course constructed by FFA kids. It wasn’t fancy but it sure was a fun, uncomplicated respite from the busyness of the rest of the fair. Along the main concourse, there was an area that might have had two vendor tents but instead the Indiana Fair organizers used the space for garage games with several ping pong, air hockey, and corn hole tables set up. My Fair has had a concerning amount of empty space the past couple of years. I love the idea of throwing a couple of table games up and letting families and friends compete the old fashioned way…without screens, headsets, or handheld wireless controllers.

Add a food truck and this could be a cool pod in Portland.



So yes, LOTS of ideas for ways to make the Clark County Fair even better and more engaging. But as I wandered through the Heartland of Fairs, I also discovered there are a number of things My Beloved Fair does better than any of the Big Time State Fairs we visited. Giving credit where credit is due:


THINGS THE CLARK COUNTY FAIR DOES BETTER:

Grandstand shows, especially in afternoon: One of my favorite things about the Clark County Fair is the variety of shows in the Grandstands, especially the second half of the Fair when there are shows at both 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Rodeo, bull riding, demolition derby, mutton bustin, tuff trucks, monster trucks… The Grandstands is a busy place to watch some good ol’ fashioned rednecky fun. There wasn’t much of any of that at the Midwestern fairs we visited. The Iowa Fair had mutton bustin set up in a small temporary ring near the carnival. The Indiana Fair had a rodeo you had to pay extra for (which we did not choose to do). And that was it. My Fair does a fantastic job offering a variety of shows for free.

The only thing I regret about our travel plans this Fairing
Season is that we missed out on seeing Demolition Derby.
I naively thought it might be at one of the state fairs.
Nope. Bad timing.  BOO!!!!



Lots of strolling entertainers: I had never really appreciated before how much fun energy and interaction the strolling entertainers bring to the Clark County Fair. Lots of people in goofy costumes walking on stilts, riding unicycles or penny-farthings, jugglers and magicians randomly doing tricks along the main concourse. The spontaneity adds to the wonder of Fairing, never knowing what surprise might be around the next barn.

The only strolling entertainer of any sort that we saw during our Midwestern Fair Trek was one guy in Wisconsin. He came out in the afternoon and was a mobile piano player. He was very entertaining and it was a hoot to have to make way for a piano motoring down the street. Rob and I spent quite a bit of time figuring out how The Piano Guy managed to steer his instrument (our fourth theory was confirmed by Mr. Google). But aside from that, none of the Midwestern fairs offered any random fun strolling about the fairgrounds. Great job, Clark County Fair!

These two were new this year and sort of hard not to watch.
The guy on the bike was also a stilter.  Is that a word?



Bigger variety of animals: Wow, color me surprised! I had no idea how unique it apparently is to have 4-H and Open Class competitions for llamas, alpacas, cats, dogs, guinea pigs (fine, I’ll call them cavies), turkeys, chickens, bunnies, and ducks. Wisconsin had three alpacas in a pen inside a vendor tent selling soft socks and hats and sweaters. The Iowa Fair had two alpacas in their Avenue of Breeds but no others were spotted anywhere on the fairgrounds for competitions, shows, or education. Indiana had one llonely llama in a petting zoo of sorts (of sorts because we were only allowed to gaze with admiration; no touching allowed).

Other than that, the only animals that were given the limelight in the Midwest were the Fabulous Fairing Five: cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses. Including one cow made of butter. Indeed, the Midwest fairs had some of the finest examples I have ever seen of those livestock but still…I really missed seeing the variety of animals and competitions I am used to at My Fair. And My Fair's Bee Barn…totally unique and possibly one-of-a kind. Definitely something to buzz about.

Not only does My Fair have 4-H Cats,
it has a 4-H Cat Costume Contest.
OH, how I adore My Fair!!



More Fair for 4-H kids: Maybe it’s the difference between county and state fairs, but I love how kid-centric the Clark County Fair feels with its animals and other 4-H competitions. Yes, the presence of 4-H and FFA was obvious in the Midwest, but it all felt a lot more serious and businessy. I didn’t see the ag kids having fun and wandering around with their friends when they weren’t in the show ring or “on herds” (herdsmanship = keeping the animal stalls clean and poopy-free). We went to some super big state fairs where the best of the best show up to compete, but it felt like it was all work and little play for the kids. I so deeply appreciate that at My Fair, the 4-H kids work extremely hard but they also take time to enjoy and experience The Fair with rides and milkshakes and inside jokes with friends on the midway.

These are two of our favorite 4-H Goat Teens who took a
break from goating last Fair to hang out with me and eat
a weird treat that made us all breathe smoke out of our
noses.  That's Fairing at its best right there.



Quieter and less boozy: It was a bit jarring at both the Wisconsin and Iowa State Fairs to discover multiple stages set up as bars to provide food, beverage, and entertainment to adult fairgoers. Local bands were blaring and as the night wore on, parts of both of those fairs felt more like Vegas or New Orleans and less like a family-friendly fair. And with this 21-and-over party atmosphere came a LOT of noise. Bands, deep laughter, glasses clinking. Bar noises.

I realized that one of the things I love but never actively noticed about My Fair is that the sounds of My Fair are of voices…kids and animals. Cheering, clapping, screams on rides, the old timey band guys with banjos and tubas, the strolling performers announcing shows, the roar of engines skidding in dirt. All of these are the soundtrack backdrop to My Fair.

Before our trip, I never really had an opinion about there being alcohol at My Fair. It’s contained in a tent near the Grandstands. I love wine and the occasional darkly bitter beer, so the concept of booze at My Fair didn’t register as a concern. But having now faired where Solo Cups could roam freely about the fairgrounds, I am grateful that My Fair limits where IDs need to be checked. I appreciate that My Fair feels like a family event all the time, even and especially at night. There are lots of places I can go to feel like an adult. One of the things I cherish most about My Fair is that it lets me be a kid for awhile.

I may be in my 50s but I don't have to act
like it. 



Lots of seating for eating and air conditioning: Another thing I have taken for granted at My Fair is how easy it is to find a cool, shady, comfortable place to sit. Whether we are eating or people watching or just taking a break, we can always find a good place to sit down at My Fair (except on the west side near the old timey farm equipment where there is no shade to be found. Is that why that side of the Fair is so unpopular?).

Boy oh boy, did we do a lot of walking at the Midwestern fairs in search of comfortable, clean seating. We found ourselves in horse arenas most often when we needed AC. Oddly, in the commercial buildings where leaf gutter guards and telescoping flag poles are pitched, the only places to sit down were massage chairs or demos to get my shoes cleaned. Thank you My Fair People In Charge for providing lots of seating!

Our Bench.  Sometimes we have to share it with strangers, but often
it is available for our use in the Big Air Conditioned Building.
For resting, snacking, chatting.



Shave ice and Smashers: I had no idea that Hawaiian Shave Ice is a West Coast thing. Sure, yes, it originated in Hawaii but that’s no reason the little ice shaver contraption can’t migrate past the Pacific time zone. I was sooo disappointed to discover that the only icy treats to be found in the Midwest were those horrible sno-cones in flimsy pointy paper cups that disintegrate while you are trying to crunch ice chunks as a pool of syrup drips on your tennis shoes. Well, I guess I did spy a couple Slush Puppy machines. I made that mistake once years ago. HORRIBLE brain freeze.

And need a refreshing drink that isn’t loaded with corn syrup or undissolved sugar granules? You’re outta luck in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana. Pretty much the only non-alcoholic drink options were soft drinks and lemonade. I desperately missed my Strawberry Mango Smashers. Mahalo, Clark County Fair for offering a lighter, fresher, maybe healthier beverage option and properly icy treats!

Had I known this would be my one and only Hawaiian
Shave Ice of the 2019 Fairing Season, I would have had
at least 3 more.  Dang it!!



Lots of water fountains: With the dearth of Smashers and Shave Ices, I drank gallons of water while we were fairing and sweating our way through the Humidity Chamber that is the Midwest. Although it helps tremendously that Rob and I know the Clark County Fairgrounds as if we worked there, I had inadequate appreciation for how conveniently populated My Fair is with water fountains. Free, cold water is a godsend while fairing with a refillable bottle. And not so easy to find in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana.

We quickly learned that we needed to locate bathrooms in order to find water fountains in the Midwest. It was as if the Fine Fair Folks hoped by limiting the water we might buy more soft drinks (oops, sorry…pop) and poorly made lemonade. At My Fair, there are several free-standing water fountains in addition to ones near restrooms, plus soooo many cups of free water offered at the booth for our local public utility. We pretty much are always proximate to free water at My Fair (although another one or two wouldn’t hurt on the south side). That’s very refreshing.

It was a hot day.



Paper products: So very odd to discover that none of the big state fairs provided adequate napkins and paper towels. It was a constant search for napkins, and I was so over the hot air hand dryers in the bathrooms. With 183% humidity, the last thing anyone needed was more hot air. Thank you, Clark County Fair for providing all the necessary disposable paper products.


Fantastically clean and well-stocked bathrooms: The posse of teenagers out in force every year at the Clark County Fair does a fantastic job keeping the tables, bathrooms, and grounds super clean. Tables aren’t sticky, toilet paper rolls aren’t empty, trash does not accumulate or blow around. This was NOT the case at the State Fairs. Granted, those are enormous fairs with huge ground to cover. Nevertheless, I noticed wayward trash, tables sticky with Fair drippings, and I quickly learned to check TP availability before committing myself to a stall. Thank you Teens in the Neon T-Shirts! You ROCK!


Fair-themed re-entry stamps:
Yes, this is a super small detail. But it is such an easy and simple way to extend the delight of being at a fair. Yet none of the big state fairs did it. Each day at My Fair, there is a different inky stamp on a wrist or the top of a hand to allow you to re-enter. The stamp might be a cow or a sheep or a squirrel or a pig. Whatever it is, it is a cute and adorable and fun reflection of what you might see at My Fair (ok, the squirrel is a stretch but you get the point). At the state fairs, the stamps were numbers or letters or the Fairgrounds’ logo (a snowflake which seemed terribly odd for a hot August night). So boring and such a missed opportunity for fun and whimsy.



So there you go: my dream list if I were in charge of My Fair. I adore the Clark County Fair and I came home with a new appreciation and awareness of more reasons why it really is Summer's Best Party.  But I am also itching to find a way to infuse some of the Midwest know-how and make my beloved Fair even better.



Thursday, August 15, 2019

Fair Fun 2019 – Day 10

Wow. I actually made it!! Ten days of Fairing at four Fairs in four states in three time zones over 14 days. And all by choice, not because I sell Leaf Gutter Guards.

I gotta be honest, there were more than a few times over the past couple of weeks that I wasn’t so sure my body was going to keep up with my Fairhardy spirit despite giving it sleep and fluids when I could. Rest assured, I will be pampering my back, feet, legs, and GI tract with couches, cats, Greek yogurt, spinach, and Netflix for a nice long spell once we get home.


Personality type
We spent about eight hours at the Indiana State Fair today, still searching for its personality. I thought I had it figured out when we spent several hours on the north side.

The north side of the Fair has all sorts of old timey stuff in an area aptly called Pioneer Village. Old farming equipment, lots of hay, booths selling sarsaparilla. That sort of quaint, turn-of-a-more-distant-century vibe.

Nearby, we found a train exhibit and wandered a little farther and learned about how a septic system works (ok, that was me…thankfully Rob already understands our potty process at home).

Rob and I played a free round of miniature golf on a course built by the FFA kids (Future Farmers of America). We didn’t keep score, but I’m pretty sure I won by one stroke.

The course had some unexpected challenges mostly
due to carpet folds and staples.


A little further away, we found a stocked pond and eavesdropped on a Indiana Park Ranger teaching some kids (and me lurking in the back) how to hold a fish when it is on your line and how to take the hook out of its mouth.

The Ranger was pretty funny.  I felt bad for him that
none of the kids were laughing.


At one point we went searching for some air conditioning (btw, the humidity has been much more civilized here in Indiana than in Iowa, hence my lack of whining. Nevertheless, I can’t get back home to Woodhaven’s blessed and previously underappreciated 40% humidity fast enough.). We found ourselves in a building with an exhibit and a game to teach us all about soybeans. Rob and I put on our thinking caps and now have a matching pair of “Bean There. Done That.” baseball hats to show for our plaque-reading efforts. We shall wear our hats proudly at home, undoubtedly making Portland hipsters envy our urban irony.

Indiana.  Soybeans.  American flag.
Might be my favorite Indiana souvenir.


After several hours soaking in farming and soybeans and fishing and sarsaparilla, I decided that I was really digging the Indiana State Fair. I deemed it a just a big ol’ county fair, which was a big ol’ compliment. It had a local feeling, representing its home with pride and intention. It had a small-town feel with an easy pace and lots of folksy fun for the kids and kids at heart. The Indiana State Fair was totally winning me over with its small-Fair charm.

But then we walked back over to the south side of the Fair. The one with the food vendors and shopping and rides and huge animal barns. Suddenly it was a bit chaotic and generic. There was no personality over there, no sense of uniqueness, no sense of Indiana. It was just busy and noisy and unspecific.

So what is the Indiana State Fair’s personality? I honestly don’t think it has figured it out yet…which is why I couldn’t get a read on it either. On one hand, it is sort of convenient to essentially offer two different Fairs for the price of one. On the other hand, the lack of cohesiveness and integration of “An Indiana Fair Experience” left me confused and wistful that I had ended my 2019 Fairing with a stronger sense of Fair.

Basic Fairness.  Could be anywhere.


A covered bridge!  Now THAT'S some Indiana
personality right there!  The carnival is just on
the other side of the bridge. So confusing.



Bubbles of emotion
So yes, today was our very last day of Fairing for 2019. For years now, on the last day of My Fair, I get all emotional and wistful and am in tears by the time we are leaving the grassy parking pasture for the last time. I had no idea if all the emotion was My Fair or Fairing in general. Tonight I found out.

We covered a lot of ground today – literally and figuratively – but it still felt like a slow, meandery pace. As the sun started to set and the crowd start to fill in for evening concerts, I felt a lump starting to swell in my throat. By the time we were having dinner while listening to a South American wooden instrument band, I was biting my lower lip. As Rob and I walked towards the exit gate, I was fighting back tears that I still haven’t shed but I know they are coming.

It turns out that I simply love Fairs. Tonight I didn’t have any friends to linger outside the Big Air Conditioned Building with or food vendors to say good-bye to or llamas to bid farewell to in the Llama Greenway. Rob and I didn’t take one last lap through the animal barns to breathe in the smell of hay and livestock one last time, or get one last Dairy Women’s Milkshake for the road.

And yet, tonight at a State Fair over 2,000 miles away from My Fair, filled with people I have never seen before nor will again, I got emotional just like I have so many times at home.

My sadness was not about leaving the Indiana State Fair itself…although I have said a silent and grateful Fairwell at our final exit at each Fair this year. No, my emotion tonight reflected the new awareness that I absolutely adore the charm and experience of A Fair…whether my own beloved county fair or an enormous Midwestern state fair. The throat lump and tears just below the surface tonight were the acceptance that I won’t get to have this cherished experience again for a while.

There is something very sweet and simple about a fair. The families, the friends, the couples all actively seeking out a respite from their daily worries and responsibilities. It’s a time to play, laugh, eat, learn, and wonder. A fair is an escape and a shared experience that crosses all sorts of demographic and cultural lines. Our society seems terribly complicated and divisive and angry at times. The past two weeks have been a blissful bubble of simplicity, community, and smiles. And tonight, I knew it was time for the bubble to burst.

Holding back the tears for the moment.


SCHEDULE:
So that’s that. No more Fairing for 2019. But once we get back to Woodhaven and I have caught up on the many hours of sleep I have left behind in the Midwest, I will post at least one Wrap Up blog of whatever impressions, memories, lessons rise to the surface. Plus I have a list going of suggestions for making My Fair even better. Because you know I have a few ideas and opinions…


STATS:

Distance walked: 13,921 steps or 5.9 miles. My legs, hips, and feet will be happy for the 4 hour flight home tomorrow.

Earrings: Milkshakes! A few people noticed them, all suggesting I apply for a job at the historic pharmacy and soda fountain on the Fairgrounds. I elected not to mention my retirement status.

Re-entry stamp: None offered even though we left the Fair several hours before it closed. Maybe there’s no re-entry privileges?

Biggest Disappointment in the Commercial building: We took a lap through the building where all the gadgets and gizmos are pitched (leaf gutter guards, garlic grinders, back massagers that will vibrate your fillings out, etc). I wanted to find the booth with the magical pink solution and mystical polishing cloths so I could get my engagement ring cleaned. My poor diamond is covered in butter, suntan lotion, and pork grease and I’ve been waiting until Day 10 to get it all spiffed up and de-Faired. And guess what booth was nowhere to be found in Indiana? Dang it!

Today’s oddest competition: The theme of the Indiana State Fair this year is Heroes of the Heartland which then took some poetic license to include a Super Heroes exhibit for the kiddos. We took a peek in the exhibit and were very confused to find a whole bunch of canned vegetables, fruits, soup. Just lots and lots of cans, all arranged in what I eventually figured out were supposed to be Super Hero images. It was only when I stood back about 15 feet that I could see the Super Images. Best I could tell, there was some sort of competition for the can stacking. But I didn’t really see any ribbons and I didn’t have the bandwidth to stop and read all the signs. Regardless, between the cans and the old china and the activity totes, I’m pretty sure my future short-hand description for the Indiana Fair will be “The one with all the weird competitions.”

Is Iron Can really a superhero?  Or did they make it up
so they could use an overstock of yellow cans of
Red Gold Tomatoes?  And I have no idea who the
Superhero Packers fan is next to him.


Price to enter the Indiana State Fair: Free thanks to being AAA members! Yes, that’s right – we did not pay to enter this Fair at all, except for parking. WHOO HOO! It seems like maybe the Indiana State Fair is sort of like Kohl’s: the only people who pay full price are people who aren’t paying attention.


FAIR FOOD FEAST PARADE:
We had a better food day today but it took some work. There is some good food at this Fair, but you have to hunt for it and it’s best to stay off the main drag.

We also spent a good hour grazing an exhibition called The Taste of Indiana. About 15 different food vendors were set up with samples of a different crop comprising Indiana’s agriculture industry. I really just wanted to eat but I ended up learning a few things…about Indiana (it ranks 3rd nationally for spearmint production and 4th for peppermint production, the majority of which is used in Colgate toothpaste and Wrigley’s gum) and myself (I like duck??). Not surprising, the exhibit was on the north side of the Fair.

Started off the day with a BBQ Beef Brisket sandwich.  I
really wanted some Hatch Chile Meatballs I saw yesterday
but they sold out last night.  BOO!  But this brisket
was actually really tasty.  Moist, melty, and the
sauce was more tangy than sweet which is how
I prefer BBQ sauce.  A winner!  Finally!

Day drinking!  We decided to try Indiana wines.  They had a
flight of four wines.  They gave the cups to us in this cardboard
holder with numbers handwritten next to each cup.  And
nothing else. No sheet listing the varietals, no info about
the wines, nothing.  We asked if they could tell us anything
about the wines and they offered to let us look at the bottles.
SO very different than how we are used to tasting wines!
So, I scribbled in the varietals and then added my tasting notes.
Overall, these were a LOT better than Iowa wines and a
bit better than Wisconsin wines.  However, we were not
tempted to bring any bottles home with us...and didn't
finish any of the cups between us.


Notes include: Watery but not sweet! (Pinot Gris); Smells
like transmission fluid; sweet (Rose); It tastes like wine!
But not a lot of fruit (Red blend - of what, nobody could
tell us);  Wrong order.  Not sweet.  Not pleasant
(Gewurztraminer)


This was called a Stuffed Ear. It was an Elephant Ear
stuffed with cooked apples.  It was delicious!  The ear
was more doughy and not overcooked like some of the
elephant ears at home can be.  The apple filling tasted
fresh, not canned pie filling.  The top of the ear was
dusted with cinnamon sugar and then drizzled with
icing.  ANOTHER WINNER!  Rob and I shared it
but we each could have finished it all on our own.

A roasted soybean in the Taste of Indiana exhibit.  It
tasted a lot like a corn nut but a lot smaller.  It was pretty
good.  I could have mindlessly eaten quite a lot of them.

Other Taste of Indiana items nibbled on prior to this: 
cantaloupe, pulled pork, turkey breast, cucumber slice,
summer sausage, and watermelon honey

Not a great photo but proof that I ate duck!  It was nicely
seasoned so it didn't taste gamey or oily.  I liked it but not
enough to consider ordering it in a restaurant.

Other Taste of Indiana items sampled:
cheddar cheese, fresh corn chips, pork brisket,
donut pudding (representing wheat; yeah, it was a
stretch but nobody cared.  MMMM!)

Free popcorn from the Taste of Indiana exhibit.  It tasted like
movie theater popcorn, which was great since I don't often
go to movies and I never buy popcorn there when I do.

I attempted to eat this chocolate covered banana.  It was
frozen solid.  When it finally melted enough to chew off some
banana bits, I was only able to eat about 2/3 of it because
then the stick was too long and I couldn't get the banana
off.  It was too late that I realized I could have eaten
the rest from the other end of the stick.  DUH!  But
truth be told, it wasn't that great.  I think it had been
frozen too long.  Or the chocolate was cheap.  Something
wasn't right so it wasn't a huge loss to ditch this when
the stick got too pointy.

A thing here is a drink called a Shake Up.  Curious, I
ordered a strawberry one.  It was a bunch of ice, water,
mashed strawberries, and lots of sugar...all shaken
up in a cup like a boozy drink.  It was rather light
and refreshing and I was quite enjoying it until
I got to the end and realized all the sugar had
sunk to the bottom of the cup.  So not only was
the Shake Up not well shaken up, it was useless
towards the end because it was just sugar and ice.

Rob and I shared some fried cheese
sticks while watching draft horses trot
around in the air conditioning.  Fine
but basic.  Not all that memorable.
Rob and I decided our last 2019 Fair Treat would be the
winner of the 2019 Indiana State Fair New Food competition.
This was a new vendor serving Puerto Rican food.  The winning
food was called Relleno de Papa. It was described as "One
mashed potato ball filled with seasoned ground beef then
fried golden brown."  It was very good, simple food.
Not overly seasoned, cooked just right. It seemed like
it would be a staple in a Puerto Rican household.  Just
solid, good food.
The mashed potato ball was supposed to come with rice
but they were cooking more and offered a side of
fried plantains instead. I jumped at the chance since
I have had them before in Costa Rica and LOVED them.
Well, these weren't quite the same. Not much plantain taste,
just a lot of fried starch. It came with a dipping sauce that
was like a spicy fry sauce.  It was good but I decided I
didn't want to eat the plantains just to eat the sauce.
We finished half of them...and called it a night.  And a Fair.

AND THAT'S THE END OF THE 2019
FAIR FOOD FEAST PARADE!!!